Coast Guard helicopter contract signed

MINISTER FOR Transport Noel Dempsey has signed a €500 million contract to lease a “new generation” of Sikorsky S 92 helicopters…

MINISTER FOR Transport Noel Dempsey has signed a €500 million contract to lease a “new generation” of Sikorsky S 92 helicopters for the Irish Coast Guard.

The contract with CHC Helicopter for the four Irish Coast Guard bases at Shannon, Sligo, Dublin and Waterford will run from July 2012 to 2022, with an option to extend to 2025 on a year by year basis.

However, a former Air Corps officer has said the State could have saved substantially if the Air Corps had been asked to tender for at least part of the contract.

Mr Dempsey predicted yesterday that more than 20 new posts would be created at the Irish Coast Guard bases, run by CHC in Dublin, Shannon, Sligo and Waterford, under the new contract terms.


He said that the company had “an excellent record in delivering search and rescue (SAR) services to our Coast Guard” and last winter’s flooding provided a “practical example of the value and diversity of our search and rescue helicopter service”.

“The contract provides for helicopters that will fly to the scene of the mission faster,” he said. The aircraft also have better search, surveillance, tracking and better medical facilities. Medical evacuations for island and remote communities, mountain rescue, and emergency aeromedical transfer in support of the Health Service Executive will also be provided by the new aircraft, he said.

Mr Dempsey said the Department of Defence had been consulted in the three-year lead-up to signing the new contract, but the Air Corps was “not in a position to deliver a contract by 2012”.

Involving the Air Corps at this stage would also involve purchasing aircraft at an estimated cost of €350 million, Mr Dempsey said. He said that when the Air Corps was involved in SAR, it had a “33 per cent reliability rate, compared to 97 per cent for CHC”.

The Air Corps was withdrawn from search and rescue by former defence minister Michael Smith in 2004 after 40 years of service.

Comdt Seamus McCormack, who retired from the Air Corps several weeks ago, said the defence wing had never been asked to submit costings for a joint service.

“The Air Corps has six new AW139 helicopters which would have been ideal for this work with only minor modification,” Mr McCormack said, speaking in a personal capacity.

“Even if the Government decided that it wanted to buy Sikorsky S-92 for all bases, at least the Air Corps and the State, would have owned them – under this arrangement, the State will own nothing.”

He pointed out that the new British government was currently reviewing a proposed £7 billion (€8.27 million) contract which was to have been awarded to CHC and its Soteria consortium partners for search and rescue.

Under the lease agreement signed yesterday by Mr Dempsey, four new S 92 A helicopters will be located at each of the four bases, with a fifth as back-up at Shannon.

The S 92A has a range of 270 nautical miles which can be extended to over 300 nautical miles if required, allowing for 30 minutes on scene. It can lift more than 20 survivors at maximum range. Its all-weather capabilities allows flight in icing conditions of up to 10,000 feet.

Irish Coast Guard director Chris Reynolds said it was “essential” that the State organisation had the “right stepped increase in capabilities” over the next decade.

Lorna Siggins

Lorna Siggins

Lorna Siggins is the former western and marine correspondent of The Irish Times